Painting is one of the oldest and most highly refined of the Japanese arts, stemming from classic continental traditions of the early historical period (sixth-seventh centuries A.D.). Native Japanese traditions reached their apex in the Heian period (A.D 794-1185), producing many artistic devices still in use. During periods of strong Chinese influence, new art forms were adapted, such as Buddhist works in Nara, ink painting in the Muromachi period, and landscape painting by literati in the Tokugawa era. When Western painting theories were introduced in the Meiji period, Japan already had a long history of adaptation of imported ideas and had established a copying process ranging from emulation to synthesis. But it was not until well into the twentieth century that the Japanese were able to assimilate the new medium of oil paints with new ideas of three-dimensional projections on flat surfaces.
Most contemporary Japanese artists could be divided into those who worked in a broadly international style and those who maintained Japanese artistic traditions, though usually within a modern idiom. After World War II, painters, calligraphers, and printmakers flourished in the big cities, particularly Tokyo, and became preoccupied with the mechanisms of urban life, reflected in the flickering lights, neon colors, and frenetic pace of their abstractions. All the "isms" of the New York-Paris art world were fervently embraced. After the abstractions of the 1960s, the 1970s saw a return to realism strongly flavored by the "op" and "pop" art movements, embodied in the 1980s in the explosive works of Shinohara Ushio. Many such outstanding avant-garde artists worked both in Japan and abroad, winning international prizes. These artists felt that there was "nothing Japanese" about their works, and indeed they belonged to the international school. By the late 1970s, the search for Japanese qualities and a national style caused many artists to reevaluate their artistic ideology and turn away from what some felt were the empty formulas of the West. Contemporary paintings within the modern idiom began to make conscious use of traditional Japanese art forms, devices, and ideologies. A number of mono-ha artists turned to painting to recapture traditional nuances in spatial arrangements, color harmonies, and lyricism.
Japanese-style painting (nihonga) had continued in a modern fashion, updating traditional expressions while retaining their intrinsic character. Some artists within this style still painted on silk or paper with traditional colors and ink, while others used new materials, such as acrylics. Many of the older schools of art, most notably those of the Tokugawa period, were still practiced. For example, the decorative naturalism of the rimpa school, characterized by brilliant, pure colors and bleeding washes, was reflected in the work of many postwar artists and in the 1980s art of Hikosaka Naoyoshi. The realism of the Maruyama-Okyo school and the calligraphic and spontaneous Japanese style of the gentlemen-scholars were both widely practiced in the 1980s. Sometimes all of these schools, as well as older ones, such as the Kano ink traditions, were drawn on by contemporary artists in the Japanese style and in the modern idiom. Many Japanese-style painters were honored with awards and prizes as a result of renewed popular demand for Japanese-style art beginning in the 1970s. More and more, the international modern painters also drew on the Japanese schools as they turned away from Western styles in the 1980s. The tendency had been to synthesize East and West. But new artistic approaches were less in favor of a conscious blending than of recapturing the Japanese spirit within a modern idiom. Thus, the 100-year split between Japanese-style and Western-style art began to heal. Some artists had already leapt the gap between the two, as did the outstanding painter Shinoda Toko. Her bold sumi ink abstractions were inspired by traditional calligraphy but realized as lyrical expressions of modern abstraction.
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